It was March of 1975. Several coaches sat in Central Florida, forming a new Division II conference. The Sunshine State Conference was born and for the first season, it had a single sport: basketball.
Jim Harley was one of those coaches. He would go on to work with the Eckerd Tritons for 39 years as head coach and then athletic director and still goes to every game. He is also an historic figure in the SSC lore. Appearing in the first game in SSC history was Florida Southern College and Harley's Tritons. The Moccasins would make history and defeat Eckerd on that December 3, 1975 day by a score of 96-84.
The conference has grown in the 40 years since, in both the number of teams and the number of sports. The one thing that has remained constant is that it has remained strong in Men’s Basketball. The current reigning DII National Champions are the very same Florida Southern Moccasins who beat Eckerd in that inaugural game.
“I have been here 33 years now,” current Eckerd head coach and Associate Director of Athletics Tom Ryan said. “I played my first four years, I was an assistant for nine, and this is my 20th as head coach. It’s a crazy league, it’s always been very, very good. It’s top to bottom tough. Palm Beach beats Barry the other day on a tip in, and then beats Southern in OT. It’s a very competitive, very fun league.”
Ryan’s Tritons are still searching for their first National Championship since the league’s inception. In fact, they are searching for their first SSC regular season title since 1995. But that doesn't faze them, as the Tritons take it one day at a time.
“I’m just thinking about the game on Saturday,” Ryan said. “Our goal is to finish in the top half of our league, because as long as we finish in that top half, we have a chance to go to the national tournament. And that’s the ultimate goal to get to the national championship and win some games and win it all.”
Right now, the Tritons are finishing in the top half, in fact, they are at the absolute top. They sit at 4-0 in the SSC and 10-1 overall on the season. The entered the NABC Poll at No. 21 this week for the first time since 2013.
“We just played Rollins a week ago and we both have started off pretty well this year,” Ryan said. “We both had pretty rough seasons a year ago. That’s playing in our league and how good it is. It’s hard to win with freshman and sophomores, and even juniors sometimes.”
The Tritons returned four of their starters from last season, but also brought in five new recruits. Jerrick Stevenson was the team’s leading scorer and returns alongside senior point guard E.J. Moody who looked to run the floor and lead this team.
“My junior class grew up,” Ryan said. “But we added some nice players. We added a transfer in Obi Kyei who’s starting at the four spot. Drushaun McLaurn is a freshman but he had 24 points in the last 12 minutes at Rollins to win that game. We have three other freshman. We had that same group coming back, but we added five new players and those were pieces we definitely needed.”
A week ago, the Tritons faced their biggest test of the season when they squared off against then No.11-ranked Rollins on their home court. Ryan’s team trailed by 16 points with 12 minutes left in the game and their undefeated record appeared to be in jeopardy. That was when the Tritons hunkered down and turned the tides. They were led by their sensational freshman McLaurn.
“In that game Jerrick Stephenson had three points, E.J. Moody had three points and Obi had five. We had eleven points from three guys that have been giving us double figures each night. All of a sudden Drushaun got a few steals, Jerrick got a steal and the defense was motivated.
“Drushaun was a blur that game. He’s fast and athletic, but he was making full speed layups in traffic and then everyone kind of jumped on board. You got a freshman playing in his tenth game in college and he did a great job providing a spark early for us. It was a big game as a conference game, but it was a huge confidence boost for us being able to come back like that.”
The difference between last season’s 12-16 team that finished 4-12 in a conference that sent three teams to the championships is maturity and the newfound depth. Stevenson leads a balanced squad that sees four players (Stevenson, McLaurn, Kevin Walsh and Trevor Young) that are double-digit scorers. Moody and Kyei are both averaging more the eight points each, while Kyei has been a monster presence off the boards, leading the team with 7.5 a game.
The new pieces Ryan referred to have not only provided a spark to this team, but have given the starters and coaching staff a boost of confidence. The Tritons provide the perfect blend of maturity and fresh faces that a successful team needs to last the rigorous demands of a long season.
“I was really proud of Jerrick Stephenson,” Ryan said of his star player after two “down” games. “He’s been our leading scorer the past couple years, but despite a rough game at Rollins, he was there at the end of the game still playing strong defense and made a couple of big free throws. The depth has helped him year. It has taken some of the burden off of him and allowed him to make passes that last year he would have forced shots on.
“We have 16 guys on the roster, and in practice very often the second team beats the first team. It’s been fun from that stand point, because seeing the banter in practice keeps everyone on their toes. No one wants to be shown up by their buddies, the competitiveness in practice has been very good for us. That depth has allowed the coaching staff to play people and not worry as much with foul trouble and rests.”
The Tritons have the Tampa Classic on deck this coming weekend, where they will face off against two non-conference foes in Eastern New Mexico University (LSC) and Tiffon University (GLIAC). They then head into the holiday break, but looming ahead is a tough four-game stretch that will surely be in the back of the Tritons’ minds. Coming out of break the face off against Nova Southeastern, FSC, Lynn and Barry — the four teams projected to finish ahead of Eckerd in the preseason polls — in a little over a week’s span.
“You show up and you want to think, ‘if we can get through Wednesday’s game it will be easier come Saturday,’” Ryan said. “That doesn’t happen anymore in Division II. There’s no gimmies anymore. Getting started in 2016 is important, having a couple home games is nice. Hopefully we come back healthy and rejuvenated.”